Modernization, Modernism and Antisemitism
(March 25, 1997)
1. Modern antisemitism generally appeared as one component of an entire set of factors – social, ideological, cultural, and political – and was organically combined with other elements. There are examples of Right-wing, Left-wing, radical, and conservative antisemitism, and in each case the antisemitic element is integrated into the broader context. That is to say, antisemitism is not an alien element attached to any given constellation but an essential element. At times, it even functions as the cement that binds all parts into one.
2. Modern antisemitism varies according to its social agents and particular content, which incidentally are bound to change over time. Thus one may remember that the beginnings of this phenomenon were found in the anti-capitalist camp, among socialists, anarchists and communists, and, afterwards, in Social-Christian groups, which had a semi-feudal, anti-capitalist bias. Jews were identified, rightly or otherwise, with capitalism. Antisemitism made a point of this identification, even though it also utilized other facets. It was surely not accidental that numerous radical groups had displayed a strong antisemitic line – for example the Young Hegelians, various strands of so-called Utopian Socialism, or Russian Populism. In contrast, the San-Simonist Movement advocated social reforms together with industrialization, and there Jewish activists took a leading role. At any rate, as the Socialist movement matured, it started to view capitalism as a phase in the process of social development, and not as an eternal enemy of the working class. On the other hand, Socialism also shed much of its earlier antisemitism.
3. As Left-wing circles were shaking off antisemitism, which had characterized many of them in the early period of the Socialist movement, antisemitism in many countries became an emblem of conservative groups. It is most likely that these two processes, the adoption of antisemitism by the Right and the shedding of it by the Left, are related to each other. That is, when antisemitism became characteristic of one political camp, it caused the other to distance itself from it. It is worth noting that the social makeup of the anti-capitalist Right was ambiguous, bearing in mind that all this takes place in the 1870s and beyond with the rise of mass movements. Naturally, there was an attempt here to enlist broader strata of society to the support of the aristocratic elite who, in the past, had had no need for public backing.
It is also possible to distinguish here some structural differences between countries such as England, the United States, the Low Countries, and to some extent, France, on the one hand, and the Central European countries on the other. Antisemitism caught on less in the industrialized countries, while being rooted in agrarian areas, which were under the influence of an anti-capitalistic nobility. Still, it is necessary of course to beware of a schematic identification of “Right”, “aristocracy,” “anti-capitalism,” and “antisemitism.” Germany, for instance, underwent a particularly accelerated pace of modernization, which incidentally undermined the old social structure; however, its official ethos was still saturated with values from the days of Enlightened Absolutism.
4. One should mention here the German term for non-contemporaneity, namely Ungleichzeitigkeit: historical development raises phenomena which can impart a dominant color to a period but at the same time past forces may remain active and choice memories continue to hover. More to the point: There is no complete correlation between the socio-economic system, culture, politics and ideology. Moreover, precisely where antisemitism is concerned now appears the new phenomenon of an overlapping between Right and Left which is due to find its fullest expression in 20th century fascism. To a certain extent, one can see already in persons like Marr or Drumond the harbinger of future fascism. Furthermore, the combining of conceptual elements from the Right and the Left, as well as persons who changed camps without any essential transformation of their basic ideas, the use of antisemitism as a social code, as it were – all these usher in the type of phenomena that becomes rather commonplace from the 1920s onwards.
5. “The industrial society” – this is the accepted term today for the phenomenon that became more and more dominant in the Western world from the end of the 19th century onwards. Several landmarks of this society are compatible with the characteristics of the process known as “modernization.” This refers generally to industrialization and urbanization – according to the Western model – as the basic trends of many countries in the world. The economic and socio-demographic permutations are accompanied by more subtle changes in the areas of culture, politics and ideology. The most significant characteristic of modernization is the readiness by many societies to willingly adopt the Western paradigm and adjust to the way of life required by the model of the industrial society. This is an innovation of our own time as against the pockets of opposition which refused to accept modernization, even in Europe, until after World War II.
6. In the past one usually spoke about progress, related to technological and economic development. It was also common practice to divide society into progressive forces, striving to enhance progress, as against reactionary forces, trying to halt it. This division was made to resemble a Manichaean shibboleth, separating the world into good and evil: on the one hand, liberals, socialists and communists, who affirm progress, and on the other hand conservatives, clericalists, and fascists, who reject it. Antisemitism was integrated here quite smoothly, and that gave the impression that the Right and antisemitism were intertwined. This distinction stems indeed from the behavior of the opposing camps toward Jews, yet a more profound aspect is also involved here, due to the identification of Jews with modernization (against the background of the respective attitudes of each camp to capitalism and social change). Furthermore, the emotional power evoked by the term “progress” had a symbolic, messianic-like resonance.
7. The eclipse of this concept nowadays and the utilization of the more neutral term modernization (instead of progress), together with the accrued legitimacy of the industrial society, might attenuate the memory of past antagonisms between the rival camps. If we retrospectively superimpose the term “modernization” on the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century, we will not be able to understand the fierce opposition that it evoked at the time. It would be wrong to attribute to modernization just some kind of technical change which should increase the wealth of society and develop its potential for the benefit of its members. Class distinctions were often based on a “zero-sum” alternative, i.e. the gains of one class were regarded as the losses of the other. Modernization was not understood as a positive development, potentially advantageous to all, but as an all-out war for the salvation of society, which might augur the end of “civilization as we know it.”
8. Here one should also look for any correlation that may, or may not, exist between modernization in society and modernism in culture. The two phenomena were more or less coterminous, yet seem to be contradictory. If modernization is usually understood as a gradual development, backed up by some social consensus, its reflection in the realm of culture was completely different. It was expressed in a rebellious and stormy manner. If modernization, however, is felt as crisis and confusion, as struggle and loss of direction, then modernistic culture faithfully reflects the reality of modernity; abstract painting, atonality in music, free verse in poetry, “stream of conciousness” in the novel and functionalism in architecture may all bear witness to this. Culture was cognizant of its role in transforming the rules of the game. One may point to the fact that fashions in the arts change permanently, and unlike the socio-political struggle between progress and reaction, there was no clear-cut division into progressive culture and reactionary culture (at least not until the Communist “Proletcult” and the Nazis’ “degenerate art”).
9. On the face of it, there was room to express with artistic, not specifically political, means – the sensation of substructural tremors passing through individual and society. Artists, by definition more sensitive than the rest of us, could express the Zeitgeist without committing themselves to clear-cut answers and solutions. Thus the Italian futurist Marinetti could be a fascist, whereas the Russian futurist Mayakovski became a communist. This is another aspect of the contradiction that seemingly exists between modernization and modernism, yet the issue is even more complicated than that: modernistic culture increasingly functioned as an avant-garde for the overthrow of the existing order. Here the points of departure were sometimes blurred and made way for an anti-establishment spirit that assailed the existing situation from many directions. In the ‘20s and ‘30s rebellious voices from the periphery strengthened, while the center became weaker. Here an amazing phenomenon came to the fore – the State lost its prestige in the eyes of wide sections of the public, on the Right and on the Left, and those loyal to it, who were identified with it, were often the Jews (Hannah Arendt on theWeimar Republic, Pierre Birnbaum on the Third Republic in France). This is a new kind of antisemitism, which shifts from the negation of “Jewish” capitalism to the negation of the State, viewed by Marx, one should recall, as a tool of coercion in the hands of the ruling class. A link was established here between the Jews and the State, parallel to that which supposedly existed between them and capitalism.
10. Here we come to a topic that requires much more study and research: What role did modern culture and modernistic art play in the formation of this new antisemitism? I mentioned before the ex-peripheries that started attacking the center, that is the liberal-bourgeois State. Indeed, the State itself was not identified with abstract painting or with Schoenberg’s “twelve-note method,” but the liberal State allowed for such innovations, even though they did not conform to public taste. Recalcitrants would claim that the State, controlled by Jewish interests, encourages decadent and harmful culture. The Nazi storm-troopers, or the revolutionary militias of the Left, catered to the masses and denigrated the aesthetic experiments of the avant-garde. Yet there were among the intelligentsia important figures who sincerely believed (not just for opportunistic reasons) in the inherent affinity between their creative oeuvres and the extremist ideologies.
What was the new message of the engaged intelligentsia? And how did the official representatives of established populism relate to it? To what extent were there parallel developments on the extreme Right and the extreme Left? Could one speak about an antisemitic culture, in a sense similar to antisemitism in the ideological and political sphere? There is an issue of perhaps greater importance, but more difficult to present as a topic for empirical study, namely: Do the new avatars of cultural antisemitism, expressed by a philosopher such as Martin Heidegger, a novelist like Fernand Celine, or a psychologist of the stature of Carl Gustav Jung – continue a legitimate tradition in European culture, or are they rather a unique mutation of various elements that got out of control at a moment of crisis?
To summarize, there are questions here of a different scope, which should be worked out in order to reach a common-denominator that would allow for a systematic treatment, utilizing the research tools of different academic disciplines.